Perfect Sound Forever

"$1000 Wedding"
Gram Parsons's Faulknerian Mini-Opera

by Mark Swartz
(July 2001)

Gram Parsons (1946-1973) is among the latest in a series of half-forgotten songwriters to be honored with a tribute album. On Return of the Grievous Angel [1], The Pretenders, Wilco, Sheryl Crow, and Elvis Costello, among others, join Parsons's longtime musical collaborator Emmylou Harris on twelve songs written by Parsons and one (Costello's version of "Sleepless Nights") by Boudleaux Bryant, a songwriter much admired by Parsons.

 "Return of the Grievous Angel" is the quintessential Gram Parsons song, a bittersweet, erotic hymn to the girl who waited for him while he explored America. Balancing swagger and nostalgia, the song acquires a current of female empowerment when Lucinda Williams takes the lead vocal on the tribute album, with rock legend/casualty David Crosby adding harmony. Most of the other songs included on the album fit into this mold: straightforward if well-wrought compositions enlivened by a fresh voice or a different tempo. The exception is "$1000 Wedding," an atypically complex song by Parsons reworked idiosyncratically by Evan Dando and Julianna Hatfield.

Dando (of the Lemonheads) and Hatfield (of Blake Babies and one-time flame of Dando) pit two different interpretations of the song one against the other. He's an epicurian in a stoic's mask, while she's an impassioned Cassandra wailing in the background. They don't even sing at the same speed. Her harmonizing, if it can be called that, excoriates the way he distances himself from the events. The way she's harassing him, she might even be his conscience. This reading departs considerably from the original, which is not without its contrasting moods, and from the Mekons' version that appears on Commemorativo, which embellishes the song with accordion but generally treats it as a good-time rave-up consonant with their approbation of genuine Americana.

The cover version pumps fresh blood into "$1000 Wedding," but it was Parsons that gave the song heart in the first place. During his brief stints with The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers and his equally brief solo career, Parsons wrote and sang dozens of sentimental yet tough ditties, educating the Rolling Stones, among others, in the emotive potential hiding behind country music's gaudy regalia. But nothing in his catalogue compares to "$1000 Wedding."

What starts as a mournful wedding progresses toward the climax of a joyful funeral. For both events there should be flowers but they aren't. What happens in between is cryptic: Did the bride die, or just ditch the groom? Did his buddies "do him in"? And if so, was it out of compassion or malice? The secrets at the heart of the story are never divulged, but the narrator(s) assumes we already know them. We're simultaneously winked at and shoved aside with inscrutable clues: "people passing notes," "he told them everything there was to tell," "old lies still on their faces." The implication is that if we can't read the notes, don't already know all there is to tell, and aren't privy to the old lies, then we're not really supposed to be hearing this story. We're eavesdroppers on a juicy tale.

Parsons biographer Ben Fong-Torres offers little information on "$1000 Wedding," except that an early draft lasted nine minutes (twice as long as the version that appeared on Grievous Angel in 1974; Dando and Hatfield reduce it by another minute) and was rejected by The Flying Burrito Brothers and producer Jim Dickson in 1969. [2] This fact suggests that the final version of the song resulted from considerable editing and revising, a period of incubation that intensifies expression. The longer version probably had very little of the mystery that distinguishes the surviving version. Fong-Torres links the lyrics of the song to a specific biographical circumstance: Parsons was engaged to Nancy Marthai Ross and took her to his favorite couturier--Nudie Cohen of Nudie's Rodeo Tailors--to have a dress made, but Ross had reservations about and never paid for the $1000 wedding dress.

Needless to say, this explanation is both unsatisfactory and unpersuasive. Admittedly, it's possible for great art to come out of mundane events; Ulysses was inspired by Joyce's gratitude toward a Jewish man who helped him when he tripped in the street. Appreciation of the novel, however, depends not on the spark but on the flame of myth, language, and character that continues to generate heat and light long after the spark is forgotten.

"$1000 Wedding" is a thirty-year-old country song, not as rich and dense as Ulysses, but evocative and poetic enough to invite repeated listenings. I have a weakness for this kind of story song where the story is elliptical, contradictory, and unresolved. They make me want to hear them again and again--first to solve the mystery and then to devise and test the validity of alternate readings. Tom Waits's "Train Song" from his "romantic opera" Frank's Wild Years, is another example, and a few years ago I became similarly caught up in "The Freshman," a tragic parable sketched by Michigan one-hit wonders The Verve Pipe. [3]

In addition to having three recorded versions--Parsons, The Mekons, and Dando and Hatfield--the better to cross-reference interpretations and listen repeatedly without exhausting the one little song, my plumbing the depths of "$1000 Wedding" has happened to coincide with my reading of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, a novel that, in addition to its well-known strengths, does an astonishingly good job at deepening the mysteries of the song. And vice versa.

Like Waycross, GA native Gram Parsons, Quentin Compson, the second narrator in Faulkner's novel, was a southern boy who briefly attended Harvard University. Neither of them lasted very long. Quentin drowned himself just after completing his first academic year, whereas Parsons dropped out after five months to take his band to New York and kick off a successful if erratic career as rock musician. Quentin is the heir to a once grand Southern family. Parsons was the heir to the Snively Groves juice empire. (His father committed suicide when Gram was twelve years old.)

Parsons's song concerns a wedding that never takes place. The invitations are mailed. The guests show up, and so does the groom. Then a scandalous event of an undisclosed nature takes place. We're given frustratingly little information about it. "I hate to tell you how he acted when the news arrived," the song goes, omitting the substance of the news and saying only that next "he took some friends out drinking," which, depending on the news, doesn't sound like a very extreme response to me. But the gossiping, judgmental voice telling this part of the story lacks the generosity either to spell out the events or to let the poor abandoned (or widowed) groom off the hook. All we're told is that the wedding cost a thousand bucks.

According to Faulkner, Quentin Compson's suicide is precipitated by his tattered family legacy and the young man's "deliberate and almost perverted anticipation of death," [4] as well as the marriage of his beloved sister Caddy. His bewildered and circuitous internal monologue keeps coming back to a confession of incest that, according to the author, never took place. Quentin's roommate Shreve finds him on the fateful day, two months after Caddy married a man unworthy of her, and asks him why he's all dressed up. "Is it a wedding or a wake?" [5]

A Faulknerian minister, The Reverend Dr. William Grace, delivers a highly poetic (or mock poetic?) sermon at the end of "$1000 Wedding" conflating the two ceremonies without shedding much light on the regrettable events that transpired on this "bad, bad day." It's not clear whether Grace is eulogizing the bride, the groom, or a child that may or may not have come from their union.

Writing about Faulkner's novel, Jean-Paul Sartre posits the reader's uncertainty as the only certain thing about the dissolving narrative frames that deny The Sound and the Fury a protagonist or a climax:

"Is it the castration of Benjy or Caddy's wretched amorous adventure or Quentin's suicide or Jason's hatred of his niece? As soon as we begin to look at any episode, it opens up to reveal behind it other episodes. Nothing happens; the story does not unfold; we discover it under each word, like an obscene and obstructing presence." [6]

The Sound and the Fury blends voices and impressions to create a shifting picture of the past haunting the present, where every action and utterance refers to a betrayal or failing half-buried in the Mississippi mud. Inasmuch as can be achieved in a pop song, Gram Parsons's "$1000 Wedding" conveys the same dense, fluid consistency.


 [1] Almo Sounds 1999. Commemorativo, another Gram Parsons tribute album, came out in 1996 and featured the Coal Porters, Uncle Tupelo, the Mekons' version of "$1000 Wedding," and "Hickory Wind" sung as a duet by Bob Mould and Vic Chesnutt.
[2] Ben Fong-Torres, Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons (New York: Pocket Books, 1991).
[3] It might be possible to connect these songs to "Frankie and Johnny," "Lord Randall," and other examples of the English ballad tradition, but their means of authorship is at odds. Whereas the ballads are the products of multiple anonymous authors, the modern story song comes from the songwriter's wanting to tell a story without being too obvious.
[4]William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury. (New York: Vintage, 1954), p. 411. This quote comes from the appendix, which Faulkner added to his 1929 novel in 1946.
[5]Ibid., p. 100.
[6] Jean-Paul Sartre, "Time in Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury." Translated by Annette Michelsen. In Robert Penn Warren, ed., Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essay (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1996), p. 87.

See the rest of our Gram tribute

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER